Thursday, November 14, 2019

On being helpful

A defendant’s right to a fair trial is an absolute right, but is the right to procedural fairness absolute? Can a trial be fair if its procedure is less than fair?

At sentencing, the defendant may claim mitigation for having given assistance to the authorities. There may be good reasons for not making public the fact that such assistance was given, and procedures may be in place to provide information to the judge on a confidential basis. Such information can take the form of a memorandum prepared and agreed to by counsel for each side. But what if the prosecutor wishes to include information for the judge’s eyes only, favourable to the defendant, but where disclosure of it to the defendant might compromise ongoing investigations?

This was considered in HT v The Queen [2019] HCA 40 (13 November 2019). Three judgments were delivered, all agreeing in the result. The majority opinions were given jointly by Kiefel CJ, Bell and Keane JJ, with support from Gordon J. Generally, where this problem arises, counsel should approach the sentencing judge for an appropriate order restricting disclosure, for example to counsel for the defendant but not to the defendant, or for disclosure to independent counsel who will then obtain instructions from the defendant to the extent that it is possible to do so while still keeping the confidential information from the defendant. At the sentencing hearing suppression and non-publication orders, or an order for an in camera hearing, could also be made.

Nettle and Edelman JJ accepted that suppression and in camera orders could be used, but they dissented by holding that the defendant must see everything that the judge sees [59]. It should only rarely not be possible for counsel to agree on a memorandum describing assistance given by the defendant, and the drafting of a suitable memorandum must be done in the light of the prosecutor’s duty of fairness. They pointed to the need for legislation to cover situations where agreement could not be reached.

In New Zealand it has been held that there is no power to exclude the public from a sentencing hearing, or to hear submissions in chambers. There are rules concerning assistance to the authorities: Criminal Procedure Rules 2012, r 5A.8. Sentencing involves deciding on a starting point in view of the seriousness of the offending and the role of the offender, and then adjusting it for mitigating or aggravating circumstances relating to the offender, and then giving credit for any assistance rendered by the offender to the authorities, and finally giving such credit as is appropriate in the circumstances for any guilty plea. In the result, the mitigatory effect of assistance to the authorities can be substantial. Failure to follow the sealed envelope procedure in the rules led to problems in AB(CA300/2017) v R[2018] NZCA 51 (not publicly available online), where on appeal credit by way of reduction of sentence by one third was considered appropriate, in the absence of a guilty plea, but where important information had been given in relation to serious offending. Orders were made suppressing the details of the assistance, the identifying particulars of the appellant, and limiting access to the court file. The Court noted that there have been cases where, when credit for assistance is combined with that for a guilty plea, a reduction from the appropriate sentence of up to 60 per cent has been approved.